Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri pits a town against a grieving, seething mother

By now, you may have heard of Frances McDormand’s performance in this movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, one that restates her apparent ability to survive any environment; cold and fire and turmoil glance off her, colouring her, but never break her dueller’s concentration. As Mildred Hayes, she’s white-knuckling the outlines of what her life has become: daughter dead, whole town knows it, son and ex-husband and friends kept at a distance, all for different reasons. McDormand takes the script, by Martin McDonagh, and elevates it, makes the work seem trustworthy and pliable and like it is unfolding before us — even if, almost from the beginning, it becomes clear this is A Play Of Ideas In Three Acts, one with absolutely no interest in detail that doesn’t hammer square the implications of those ideas.

Some exposition: Mildred’s daughter was raped, murdered, burned. The police did not find any suspects. They have not kept in communication with Mildred. And so she purchases billboard space, poppy-red paint, a clear message — newspapers can be flipped through, screens scrolled past, but this is permanent and unavoidable, even if the location is closer to her house than the police station’s. Town outcry follows, the machinations of public revulsion to police criticism begin, grief continues unabated. Even if this takes place in a small, main-street town, and the case is a specific, emotionally drawn one, this all sounds a little familiar, no? McDonagh’s script, when it isn’t following his ammunition-catalogue just-joking comedy-tragedy instincts (gay slurs, midget jokes, sentimental suicide, sexist caricature, long-take violence), seems to seize upon Our Moment, of racist police departments, missing women, and media-based campaigns to end silence and instigate long-delayed processes of justice.

But topicality aside, that isn’t really the main draw for McDonagh in Three Billboards. Playwrights decamping to location sets and larger budgets is nothing new, but this film follows closely after August Wilson’s Fences and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea as a theatre-adjacent work concerned with deep anger (and the love that can’t break through). Why these and not a hundred other plays? Well, there is a perhaps-universal power to these portrayals: McDormand is nobody’s fool, isn’t dumbfounded by what’s happened, knew it could happen, none of it is unimaginable, and yet she still can’t shake any of it. She is, time passing, people talking to her, publicity and further action changing the arrangement of her life irrevocably, not moved one iota: the relationship of her to her past is fixed.

It should perhaps be mentioned that despite McDormand’s major role, this is something of an ensemble, with special attention payed to police officers played by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, and that the movie suffers as it travels down these other narrative tracks. Harrelson is a dad-clown or not as scenes demand, Rockwell is a barely-sketched psychopath (mob-boss mom, generic comic books as only guiding light), Lucas Hedges handles McDonagh’s highly Written dialogue considerably less well than the lived-in, subtle work he was given in Manchester and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. McDonagh is more skilled than most at narrative, and so he uses these broad supporting details to great effect as rug-pull moments, but there is the overall sense that this is a town set up to prove a standard point we’ve already heard: while McDonagh puts the talking point in the mouth of a character set up as a total joke (she’s the 16-year-old girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband, and says things like, “Oh! Can I use the bathroom?” as she interrupts a volcanic fight), the gathered evidence of the play’s details posits that retribution does not lead to revolutionary change. One fire leads to another fire, which is bad, one death leads to another near-death, and that is bad, and, finally, in the end, the choice between more retribution and perhaps instead some kind of healing is given. Apparently, this anti-eye-for-an-eye pragmatism is exactly what people (at least those who can afford $50 tickets) want to hear: Three Billboards won the audience award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

But to really consider the film’s selectively broad appeal, we might also say the film merely combines what’s already in the air: the original Twin Peaks without any style or imagination, Manchester by the Sea without the throbbing religious guilt (but with the slipstream flashbacks and classical arias, edited in with drag-and-drop significance), news headlines and glass-house-community attitudes. Onto this McDonagh lays a classical narrative of redemption that favours not McDormand, who only achieves greater hurt with each move she makes, but a disgraced cop. As if hope ought to be in the restoration of precarious institutions.